Koch Vision // 1986 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // May 6th, 2005
Do engines get rewarded for their steam?
After the success of her 1982 children's series Faerie Tale Theater, Shelly Duvall created Tall Tales & Legends, a short-lived 1985 anthology series that offered dramatizations from the lives of fictional American folk heroes including Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett, and Paul Bunyan. Of these and all the other popular legends that have fascinated children and adults over the years, however, few are as powerful as the tale of steel drivin' man John Henry, which is presented on this new, single episode DVD release of Tall Tales & Legends by Koch. Forever immortalized in song, the story of John Henry was an ideal myth to bring to life for Duvall's show, a poignant allegory about the dehumanizing effect of technology and the undying spirit of the human race that stars a young Danny Glover.
Irish servant Quinn (Tom Hulce, Amadeus) regales a young boy with anecdotes about his old friend John Henry (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon), a man of unbelievable strength and virtue who arrives in West Virginia to work on the railroad. John Henry is not in town for more than ten minutes when he's already challenged cocky steel driver Spike to a competition to impress and win over his girlfriend Polly Ann, which he does, scoring hammer swinging jobs for both himself and Quinn in the process. When John Henry starts working on the railroad, he saves his friend Jim (crooner Lou Rawls) from a rockslide, and agrees to take over his workload so that his injured friend can still collect his pay. Eventually the railroad boss brings in a steam-powered drill to take the place of his unreliable workers, and John Henry challenges it to a ten-hour competition to prove that machine will never replace man.
Now, tall tales are one thing, but this episode of Tall Tales & Legends takes several liberties with the John Henry mythos, and mercilessly pads the basic story to justify its running time. The initial subplot about John Henry using his hammering talents to charm Polly Ann cheapens the legend slightly, and her sudden attraction to the legendary steel driving man is hokey and poorly plotted. This episode also substitutes a happy ending that glosses over Henry's untimely demise -- according to most versions of the song, "He worked so hard, he broke his poor heart; He laid down his hammer and he died," making the story one of sacrifice and martyrdom, an element completely lost in this dramatization. However, when it comes down to the whole point of the story, the battle with the engine, the show does a pretty good job bringing the story to life for children, espousing the philosophy of the working man and depicting the slave-like conditions under which much of the railroads were built.
From the moment the steam drill's obviously cardboard arm starts to wobble, it's pretty obvious that this wasn't a big budget show, but the makeshift sets and lack of bankable production values are really supposed to be besides the point; set dressing for the big names who graced Duvall's show, actors that included Molly Ringwald, Ed Begley Jr., and Beverly D'Angelo. The acting on this particular show is fairly even all around. Glover confronts the engine and delivers an engaging monologue about the necessity of beating it, while Rawls, of course, sings "John Henry" in the final scene. Occasionally, the show's star power often seems to be more important than the subject matter at hand, but that's a minor quibble that probably won't be picked up on by a young audience.
The transfer on this release is pretty muddy. This is partly because of the videotape master, but it's also due to poor lighting. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack, as expected, is rather flat, but adequate. There are no extra features on this release.
While adequate for elementary school teaching aid libraries, I'm not sure why Koch would choose to release Tall Tales & Legends as individual DVDs and not opt for a season set, which really is the industry standard now. With no extras, only satisfactory quality, and less than an hour of run time, there's not much to convince the average person to lay out the cash to pick this release up, and as a result, it doesn't exactly take an extraordinary act of strength to pass this one by.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated